31 Dec 2022, 17:45

'Pele is eternal': Brazilian city of Santos honors its idol

 SANTOS, Brazil, Dec 31, 2022 (BSS/AFP) - From the second floor of her house, Onofra Alves Costa Rovai can see the Vila Belmiro, the stadium where Brazilian football legend Pele first took the world's breath away.

Rovai has fond memories of chatting with "O Rei" (The King), who died Thursday in a Sao Paulo hospital at age 82, triggering an outpouring of emotion in Brazil -- and especially in Santos, the city where he played most of his storied career.

"He would come out that door after matches and we would talk football. He was like that -- just an ordinary person, he would talk to anyone about anything. He was marvelous," said Rovai, 91, motioning to the stadium's main gate, a stone's throw from her modest blue house.

"My mother used to love Pele," the white-haired retiree recalled with a smile. "What a player. My God in heaven, he was born for it."

Santos, a southeastern port city around 75 kilometers (45 miles) from Sao Paulo, is preparing a massive tribute to its late hero, widely considered the greatest footballer of all time.

A 24-hour wake for Pele, whose real name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, will be held at the 16,000-capacity stadium from Monday to Tuesday.

That will be followed by what is expected to be a massive funeral procession through the city's streets. He will then be buried in Santos's Memorial Cemetery in a private ceremony Tuesday.

- 'Where he belongs' -

Pele debuted for Santos at the age of just 15, and went on to score 1,091 goals in 1,116 matches for the club, winning 45 titles along the way, according to the team's records.

The Vila Belmiro has become a place of pilgrimage for a stream of die-hard fans since Thursday, all eager to pay homage to the only player in history to win three World Cups.

As Brazil held the second of three days of national mourning for Pele Friday -- extended to seven days in Santos and surrounding Sao Paulo state -- a light rain drizzled from a gray sky in the port city, fitting the local mood.

Several houses sported Santos FC banners celebrating Pele's 18-year career with the club.

Three bouquets of flowers had been placed at the foot of a Pele statue outside the stadium.

One lifelong Santos fan, Anaur Aparecido Deolindo, went to the stadium as soon as he heard the news.

"It's as if I lost a family member. He was just a boy when he arrived here. He grew up here and went on to conquer the world," the 57-year-old retiree told AFP.

"Now he's back where he belongs, right in God's lap," he added.

"Edson died, but Pele is eternal."

- Idol forever -

Jonas Augusto dos Santos, another lifelong Santos fan, like his father and grandfather, went to the stadium with a group of friends in tribute.

"Life hasn't been easy for Brazilians, that's why we're always in search of a hero. Pele may be dead, but he won't stop being one, said the 28-year-old software analyst.

He added: "I'm sure his soul is right around this stadium, and in the hearts of all Brazilians."

Wearing the club's jersey, elementary school teacher Luiz Santos said the gloomy weather had kept many mourners away -- but that he was sure the turnout for the wake and funeral procession would be massive.

"This is going to be packed Monday," he said.

"A lot of people are going to come."